FCC's Copps: Forget About Fairness Doctrine

FCC's Michael CoppsThe Democratic acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Copps, has urged members of the FCC's new Diversity Committee not to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, which required local broadcasters to present both sides of political debates.


His opinion is significant because the Fairness Doctrine has been a popular cause among Democratic politicians who dislike the general rightward slant of American talk radio. But it is also a political albatross for the Democrats, giving conservative foes fodder for arguments that liberal Democrats will try to restrict free speech.

The Fairness Doctrine mandated the presentation of both sides of political issues by broadcasters from its inception in 1949 until its demise in 1987. Enforcement was the specific responsibility of the FCC for the last two decades of this period, with the doctrine and FCC authority surviving multiple legal challenges beginning in 1969. In 1974, Chief Justice Warren Burger warned: "Government-enforced right of access inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate."



Once Republican FCC commissioners appointed by Ronald Reagan gained ascendancy, the Fairness Doctrine was axed.

During that period, the Fairness Doctrine was vulnerable to a number of criticisms, not all of them political or ideological. At the most basic level, it accepted and reinforced a binary view of American politics, boiling every issue down into two (but no more than two) opposing views, predictably endorsed by Republicans and Democrats.

This reductive, simplistic approach did not allow for diversity of views across the political spectrum or within the two main parties. The doctrine was open to attack on free speech grounds, for the simple reason that compelling a person or entity to voice a certain view might be seen as just as coercive as prohibiting another kind of speech. Also, the doctrine was seen as running counter to free market principles, under which media outlets ostensibly try to offer only content for which there is popular demand. The conventional thinking: if there aren't as many liberal radio mouthpieces as conservatives, it's probably because there isn't as much of an audience for them.

(On a related subject, conservative critics of the Fairness Doctrine argue that its basic purpose is fulfilled by public broadcasting, which sometimes tends toward more left-leaning political views. At the same time, Republican efforts to cut funding for public broadcasting have rendered this argument somewhat disingenuous.)

With the election of Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat, conservative talk show hosts seized on the prospect of a Fairness Doctrine revival to buttress grassroots conservative opposition to the new administration, as well as Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. It's worth noting that talk-show hosts from Air America, a liberal talk-radio network, also oppose the return of the doctrine, saying it will hinder their own operations.

Thus, by recommending that the FCC's Diversity Committee let sleeping dogs lie, Copps is trying to forestall a move that Democrats, relishing their newfound power, may later come to regret on political grounds.

He is also delineating the area of responsibility for the Diversity Committee, which was created by Democrats to deal with issues affecting minority ownership of media outlets -- an area which Copps took pains to distinguish from the political content of broadcast media.

"Those who claim that promoting diversity and addressing the woeful effects of past discrimination are the equivalent of bringing back the Fairness Doctrine understand neither the Fairness Doctrine nor, more importantly, the lack of opportunity minorities and women have when it comes to owning and operating the enterprises that allow us to communicate with one another," said Copps.

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